Spring Break 2015 Vol. 4: To Jordan, to Petra…

After having to break day 2 up into two posts to fit everything in, I thought I could get all of Jordan/Petra in one place, but that was a dream. So here’s the story of my first day in Jordan including a small peek at Amman and Petra. Don’t forget to check out all of the photos on facebook. ūüôā


Amman and the Roman Ruins

To get to Petra, I first had to fly to Amman, a large city in Jordan filled with ancient Roman ruins and quaint, steep hilled neighborhoods that make Queen Anne look flat. My flight had changed so I arrived in Jordan at about 3am and shuffled bleary-eyed through customs and passport security to meet my hostel’s driver. (awesome hostel, by the way, I’ll be doing a full write-up on them in another post)¬†I had booked a room in a female dorm, and at nearly 4am, crawled into my top bunk as quietly as possible and fell asleep.

I knew there was no way I was going to catch the 6:30am charter bus to Petra, so I came down for a leisurely breakfast and a think about my plans. I checked on costs for taxis and car rentals, but in the end I decided I’d just go ahead and take the public transportation. But first, since the hostel was a mere 30 meters from the Roman Theater, I decided I should have a look before I left on the 3 hour bus ride to Petra.

IMG_1271Lo and behold, I walked about a block and turned the corner into an ancient Roman ruin of the kind we usually identify with Italy. I spent about 20 minutes poking around the public areas, had to politely pry myself away from a would-be tour guide who wanted to drive me up to some of the other ruins nearby. I was also tentatively greeted in English by a group of Jordanian ladies.

The Muslima fashion in Jordan is quite different than Saudi. Most girls wore skinny jeans and boots with varying lengths of jackets (because it was cold). Some more modestly covered their hips and bottoms, but several wore tops that showed off their assets quite well. Hijabs were in many colors and seemed to be concealing either a cone-head, or the alien skull. This one is about an average size, but some were bigger! Seriously, I have no idea what those girls have under there, but there is no way it’s only hair. Prosthetics are clearly involved.

Eventually decided that if I had more time, a ticket inside would be nice, but I didn’t want to feel any more rushed, so¬†I hailed a taxi to take me to the bus station.¬†(more photos)

Taxis and Buses

I’m still trying to figure out why I’m such a commodity in the Middle East. Men¬†never hit on me this much in the West.¬†At least this one wasn’t as clumsy as the guys in Saudi. It was certainly an interesting test of my Arabic skills. I realized during the ride that I’d really picked up more than I thought. I still can’t form sentences worth a damn, but I can understand a lot more than I used to, and generally make myself understood too.

He tried to get me to come stay at his house, offering to share beer and saying it was nicer than a hotel. But he was good natured about being turned town, and kissed my hand sweetly when I left the taxi.

At the bus station, I knew I needed to find the bus by asking around, since there are no signs or schedules. I found a bus going to Wadi Musa which is the town next to Petra and another enthusiastic taxi driver who helped by telling the bus driver where my hotel was so he could drop me off at the door for an extra Dinar. He also gave me his number and said I should call him when I was heading back so he could pick me up and take me to the airport. When I explained my flight was hours after I’d be returning, he offered to take me to his house where his wife would cook a wonderful dinner for me. (I never called that guy)

The buses don’t run on a schedule, but rather just wait until they are full, then leave. I had arrived just as one full bus was leaving and was the first person on the next bus, so it was a long wait. But I did save over 100$ (US) by taking the bus instead of a car, so I feel like an hour was worth it.

The drive was long and the driver stopped briefly but repeatedly to drop passengers off along the way, seemingly at random. About halfway through, we stopped at a little rest area with a small cafe, a convenience store and a public bathroom. I picked up a cup of sweet hot Turkish coffee and took the opportunity to nab my hijab out of my bag and tie it on. I felt fine walking around Amman without it, but I had noticed that all the other women on the bus were wearing hijabs, and while no one had said anything, I felt more comfortable once I wasn’t standing out so much.

I was really surprised at the landscape. Despite the fact that it isn’t that far from Saudi, it didn’t feel like a desert at all any more. In fact, shortly before we arrived in Wadi Musa we seemed to hit a green belt and were surrounded by beautiful evergreens for the last part of the drive. The mountains snuck up on us slowly, we drove through foothills that had so many ups and downs that it was easy to loose track of the fact that we were gaining elevation until we were suddenly surrounded by mountains on all sides.

True to his word, the driver pulled up right out front of my hotel and let me out. It was already almost 3 in the afternoon and Petra closes at sunset, so I wanted to get a move on. The hotel staff were quite accommodating, getting me checked in quickly and even giving me a lift down to the Petra gate when I couldn’t find a taxi.

Petra

Petra is the famous capital of the ancient Nabatean civilization. It’s also the place Indiana Jones went in Last Crusade¬†(don’t worry, I didn’t drink out of any fancy chalices). Not only is it an amazing site on its own, it is also related to the sites in Saudi that I had just seen at Madain Saleh.

The single day entry fee to Petra is 50JD and the two day is only 55JD, so even though I only had a couple hours of light left, I decided that it was worth an extra 5JD (about 7USD) to go in that afternoon. The ticket sellers were reluctant to sell me a ¬†pass, even though it was for two days, trying to explain that I “didn’t have enough time” (nearly 2 hours). I managed to convince them anyway, but they closed all the ticket windows as soon as I had paid and turned to find the gate.

While Madain Saleh is a restricted and private area that we basically had to ourselves and a couple other guided groups, Petra is the classic definition of tourist trap. Even before you get to the gate there are rows and rows of souvenier stalls selling stuffed camels, “authentic” Middle Eastern clothing, hookahs, caps, hats, pashmina scarves, beads, magnets, and other gew-gaws.

Upon entering the park, you are accosted by Bedouins trying to sell you a horse ride. These claimed that the price was included in the ticket, and that it would not be free the next day. Don’t you believe it. They’ll ask for a tip or a gift or something. It’s not free. It’s also not much of a ride, just a trot up and down the first few meters of the park. Even if you have small kids, I’d say skip the horses and hold out for the camels. If you really need help with the long walk, skip the camels and hold out for a mule.

I walked through the open area, following the trail and politely declining about a dozen offers of a ride. Several also told me that I didn’t have time, even though I knew that the walk from the gate to the Treasury was between 30 and 45 minutes, and I also knew that I didn’t have to be out the gate at precisely sundown. But I bet they make a lot of money from the kind of tourists who never read travel blogs before they go.

There were a few carvings that looked similar to Madain Saleh, but nothing spectacular. You have to walk for a long time to get to the spectacular.

The Siq

IMG_1308The next phase of the walk is called the Siq. It¬†is a narrow passage between two towering cliffs. The mule drivers came out here and started trying to sell me a ride and even mule drawn carriages that go to and from the Treasury. The later are obscenely expensive, by the way, considering it’s only about a 20 minute walk, and such a beautiful walk at that. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go in a covered carriage and miss the upward view!

If my narration seems interrupted every couple sentences by someone trying to sell me something, that’s because the experience was interrupted every couple of minutes by someone trying to sell me something. Petra is beautiful, but it’s hard to take in the awesome splendor of the ages when someone is pestering you to spend money. I had read on another blog that the best way to deal with these merchants is to maintain a polite and sunny attitude and simply say “no thank you”. It was actually surprisingly effective. I think they’ve been conditioned to respond to “thank you” with “you’re welcome”, like a Pavlovian English response, because most of them did just that and moved on. A few were more persistent, but for the most part it worked quite well.

It probably also helped that this was February and none of them were trying quite as hard as they might during the height of tourist season.

IMG_1310The Siq¬†gives this sensation like you’ve fallen down a crack in the earth. The path is very smooth and comfortable to walk however, and there are a couple rest benches and trash bins along the way. I spent most of the walk just gazing upwards, staring at the vertical landscape, ribbons of color in the rocks, waving and jutting formations and the shifting sliver of late afternoon sky far above. Finally, I rounded another bend and in the narrow gap ahead a tiny shard of the vast bulk of the Treasury soared from ground to sky.

The Treasury

The close walls and immense height of the cliffs of this part of Petra make one feel exceptionally small, like a mouse in a giant’s home, and the Treasury does no less. The sheer scale of the monument is unbelievable. I have pictures, and even have some with humans for size perspective, but it can’t convey the way that standing in front of something so immense makes you¬†feel.

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And then someone tried to sell me some silver bracelets. Kids who live in the Bedouin village are put to work early learning to fleece tourists. This one probably spoke better English than my college students back in Saudi, and had a whole list of reasons why I should buy from him that day, one of which was that he could only work on the weekend and had to go back to school tomorrow. I’m sure these all would have been harder for me to deal with if I hadn’t spent so long in China where fleecing tourists seems to be the national past time. As it was I replied, Ah school! Good for you! and he ran off to find someone less teachery.

The treasury was really stunning, and I was very glad I decided to come into the park even if just for a couple hours because I’m sure I would have felt horribly rushed if I’d really tried to see everything in one day. What am I saying, I still didn’t see everything. I only managed to walk the main path and had to turn away from all the tantalizing side trails. Maybe if I’d known the layout better, I would have tried to visit the High Place of Sacrifice that evening, because it’s a one way trail that leads to a high platform, but then comes back to the treasury area.¬†(more photos)

And then someone tried to sell me a camel ride. I’ve actually left out most of the sales attempts from this narration, but some are amusing. This on tried to tell me what an interesting experience riding a camel is. MERS aside, I’ve ridden a camel before.¬†Interesting is the perfect word, about halfway between¬†when a small child shows you a scribble of lines and shapes and you say, oh my how …¬†interesting and the old Chinese proverb about interesting times. I’m A-OK not riding more camels. Ever. So I thanked him and declined, saying I’d already had the experience, and that I saw camels every day in Saudi. This created some amusement among the camel drivers around, perhaps they thought it was strange for a lone white woman to talk about Saudi camels?

The Street of Facades, The Royal Tombs, the Roman Theater and a Bedouin named Eagle

Picture 115I wandered around the corner and saw the Street of Facades and the Theater. There isn’t much Roman influence in Madain Saleh, but Petra is covered with it. Not only are the columns more frequent and ornate, but there is a full on Roman Amphitheater against one cliff.

IMG_1326The Street of Facades and Royal Tombs are really neat because it is where you can see the most resemblance to Madain Saleh. There are two pillared doors with peaked arches and five step ziggurats of the necropolis are echoed in this part of Petra quite clearly, like a bridge in time between the earlier developments of Nabatean culture into Roman and even later Christian influences that came into Petra.

Here another young man tried to sell me a mule ride, although his attempts at salesmanship were a little half-hearted. However, after accepting my disinterest in riding (it was getting close to closing time after all) he paced his mule along side me and began chatting. I like meeting new people on my travels, and since he wasn’t trying to sell me anything anymore, I was fine with this. He introduced himself as Eagle and told me that he had actually been born in one of the caves of Petra. He also still liked to live in a cave there most of the time. He was a part of the native Bedouin tribe that had been very gently relocated to a nearby village that the King built for them when Petra was made a National Park and UNESCO Heritage Site.

Picture 128Eagle walked with me from the Roman Theater, past the Royal Tombs and along the Colonnaded Street. He shared tidbits of information about the things we passed, playing tour guide and boasting about his home. He showed me where to walk along the crumbling ancient roadway. He pointed out the two-humped camel rock in the cliffs on the horizon. And he even took some pictures for me on the road in front of the tombs. I asked him questions about his life in Petra, how he had come to learn English, whether he was happy there, and he asked me questions about America and Saudi and how I came to be travelling alone.

The sun began to set and I walked much farther into the park than I had originally meant to, but I knew the path back was clear, so wasn’t too worried about getting lost even if the light faded. Plus a cell phone makes a handy emergency flashlight. He told me how beautiful Petra was at night and I asked about the candlelight tour that I had read about online. He said it wasn’t really worthwhile, since the people operating it were very strict about where people could go and always trying to get everyone to be quiet but failing. But he said that the Bedouins often came into the caves of Petra at night to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy the night.

Picture 133I like meeting people, but I’m not sure I could have stayed in the park at night with only the native Bedouin, so I shifted the subject. The other Bedouin sales people, camel and mule drivers were all packing up and meeting in a central spot before heading home. We walked into a clearing that was filled with camels. Eagle told me that his village was a short walk up the hill and that he could get someone to drive me back to the hotel for 2-3JD (about the same as a taxi would cost from the gate) and that I was welcome to walk there with him so I could see a new view and have some company instead of walking back to the front gate alone.

I decided that was safe enough, plus I wanted to see where these people lived. Some of my favorite travel experiences have been hanging out with natives, not just taking in the tourist attractions, so we set off up the hill toward the village.

To the Bedouin Village

The rock formations in Petra really are stunning and I got to see some of the amazing colors in the deep red rocks. The shapes and colors reminded me of nothing so much as sleeping dragons. We passed a few more tombs, caves and carvings along the way as well as a little lemon grove that the Bedouin cultivated. I was told they also grew olives and made very fine olive oil.

The walk was much farther than the 20 minutes I’d been told, but I don’t think he was being intentionally misleading. We were walking at a leisurely pace, and were passed by many other Bedouin driving camels and mules back at a brisk trot, so I expect it normally is about 20 minutes for him. Eventually, the climb became quite steep. I’d hiked all over Al Ula just the day before, then flown to Jordan and only had a few hours of sleep before setting out again, so my energy was flagging and I finally accepted the offer of a ride on the mule, whose name was William.

Picture 141Watching the sun set in Petra and seeing the first few evening stars appear over the cliffs as we ascended toward the village is not something I will ever regret or forget. As the Maghrib Athan began I realized for the first time why everyone always tells me that they imagine Athan as this haunting and beautiful experience. In Saudi it’s often just a side note in my day, but here in the red striated cliffs and golden light of the fading day as the call to prayer drifted down to us from the village mosque above, I felt the beautiful connection of divine, human and natural meeting in one moment.

Picture 126

We left Petra proper, passing by the park police. It felt a bit strange to be walking out of the park this way, but the guard at the gate nodded and exchanged greetings with Eagle as we passed and seemed to find my presence unremarkable. As we continued up the road, Eagle told me about another route up to the Monastery called “the back way” that included a site called Little Petra. He said if I wanted he could help me arrange a tour up to that part of the park so I could approach the Monastery from that direction and then descend again through the front part of the park.

While I always want to believe the best of people, I am a natural skeptic, so I was unwilling to commit to such a thing until I had a chance to verify the story. Sadly, I’d read accounts online of the Bedouin extorting visitors (though never hurting them or anything) and didn’t want to fall into a scam or trap no matter how nice Eagle seemed. So he gave me his number and told me to call if I wanted to go in the morning.

In the village I met several of the children that had been selling postcards or bracelets in Petra, as well as Eagle’s brother who also spoke excellent English and told me that he had a wife in France. Then true to his word, he had another friend give me a lift back to the hotel, letting me know that I could give him 2-3JD for the ride. I gave him 5.¬†(more photos)

Dinner at the Seven Wonders

Back at the hotel, I quickly checked in with my host there about dinner, since we were supposed to go up to her husband’s hotel (a Bedouin style tent encampment up in the mountains) for a group dinner which sounded way cooler than dinner alone in my room.

While we were waiting to be picked up, I asked her about the Bedouin in the village, what she knew about them and their interactions with tourists. I explained about the invitation and asked her advice, figuring since she’d lived there for five years, she’d know. She told me that mostly they were fine, but to be careful about staying with them after dark. Although the gates of Petra close at sunset, the actual curfew is midnight, so sometimes visitors stay with the Bedouin there and drink in the caves, but the Bedouin get drunk and don’t want to leave, resulting the the tourists being stuck or getting in trouble with the police for being there after curfew.

She also said the back way was legitimate and that she herself charged tourists 60JD for that tour option so as long as I wasn’t paying more than that, that I should be perfectly safe going that option with Eagle and his friends.

Waiting for the ride I met a couple more tourists, one who lived in Jordan and her friend who was a nurse in Portland, but had gone to school in Seattle (small world gets smaller!). The path to dinner¬†was a dark road out of the town of Wadi Musa and into the mountains. The stars were completely out by this time and simply filled the night sky. If it weren’t so cold, I probably would have stood outside and stared at them forever, but Jordan is quite chilly in the winter and combined with the desert climate and mountain altitude I couldn’t stand to be outside for more than a few moments before I caved and went into the fire-warmed tent.

Picture 145The rocks around the permanent camp had been decorated with paper lanterns, similar to what is used in the Petra by Night experience. It was really quite lovely, the dots of soften firey glow-light around the cliffs, offsetting the patterns and edges and casting a gentle light into the camp that showed us the path without interfering with the starlight.

The other two girls were actually staying in that “hotel”. Apparently there are individual tents in the area that are also fire-warmed, as well as hot showers during a few hours each morning and evening, and a generator to provide wi-fi as well. I had actually looked at it when booking online, but decided that while it might be really cool in summer, that during February I would opt for something indoor and thus wound up in the wife side of the husband/wife businesses.

In the main tent it was indeed quite warm with a large cast iron fire pit in the center that had a suspended sort of chimney/flue above it to funnel smoke up and out of the tent. We joined several other guests in the tent and sipped hot sweet tea and enjoyed the fire while we waited for dinner to be ready. It was a nice evening, chatting and sharing stories. I wanted to send Eagle a message about the tour the next day to find out how much his friends would be charging, but it took me a long time to figure out what I had entered incorrectly. What’s App is great for international SMS, but it’s very picky about how you enter a number into your contact list. I finally got in touch with him, but didn’t get a price quote that evening.

The dinner was fairly standard “Bedouin” fare, similar to what I had in Saudi before, kabsa and salad (though not as good as what I had in Madain Saleh), there was a stewed vegetable dish that was quite tasty and some of the cream cheese filled pastries made of the vermicelli-like pastry dough. It was mostly amusing to me to watch the new tourists marvel at the “strange” food which has over the last six months become quite familiar to me.

By the time I got back to the hotel it was after 10pm and I’d vowed to try to catch the 7:30 shuttle to the Petra gate that morning, so I cranked up the heater, set my alarm for 6am and fell asleep.

This story is continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 4: To the¬†Monastery¬†and Back. Don’t¬†forget to check out all the photos of the trip on my facebook page!

ūüôā

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Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3: The Continuing Adventures in Al Ula (pt.2)

This story picks up on day 2 after a quick stop for lunch.
If you missed the first part of the day, check out Spring Break 2015 Vol.2

plus see the full photo albums for the Dadan and the Dinner as well as for Old Town and the scenic sunset on my facebook page ūüôā

The Dadan

Unless you’re up on your Bible study, this tribe may not be familiar to you. I actually didn’t know about it at all until we visited the site, and I had to do a fair amount of digging to get any information at all online. The Dedanites were an older version of the Lihyanites, and are basically only mentioned in the Bible and obscure archaeological texts. If anyone reading this knows more sources, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Mr. Fayez told us that the Dadan predate the Nabateans (seems to be true) and that their habit of carving tombs into the rocks was the inspiration for the necropolis at Madain Saleh. However, little else seems to be known about them, probably again from the complete lack of archaeological study in the Arabian Peninsula before the late King Abdullah. Inshallah, one day we may know more.

Like everywhere around Al Ula, the landscape was striking with huge jutting rocks and rich native greenery. In addition, the Dadan ruins were in the midst of several date palm farms, adding extra green to the scenery. The colors in the bright afternoon were stunning: dark green palms, red rocks and sand, and a deep blue sky with streaks of white clouds. The heat was intense in the late afternoon. Nothing, I’m sure, compared with the summer, but it made me glad that I had chosen to come in February because I simply could not imagine being outdoors in the late afternoon in a warmer month. The sun is simply scorching!

From a distance, Mr. Fayez pointed out some faint dots on one of the high rocks and told us those were the Lion Tombs of the Dadan, and that we were going to walk up to them.

IMG_1147Once again, my shoes filled up with sand as we trekked to the base of the towering rock and then up the stairs that had been added later for the benefit of tourists. Indradeb gave up once he got close enough for his zoom lens to capture the tombs, but I persisted in spite of the heat, and once more found myself face to face with history, my fingers tracing the outlines of ancient carvings left for thousands of years. The climb in my black abaya in the afternoon sun was intense, but worth it.

The lions were quite simple, and there were no pillars on the doorways of the tombs, but it was fairly obvious that the style had inspired the necropolis at Madain Saleh. And the view from the top that took in the entire landscape we had traversed to reach them was breathtaking.

After climbing back down, we drove a short distance (thankful now for the cooler full of cold water and juice that had seemed unnecessary in the cool morning) to the ruins of a village that was in the process of being excavated. IMG_1181Archaeologists don’t work all the time in Saudi. In fact, there don’t seem to be any native Saudi teams at all, only teams of foreigners who come in to the country for a few weeks at a time to dig and catalog what they can before returning to their own countries to analyze it. However, the stakes and strings were still in place, and the village was clearly in the process of being uncovered.

IMG_1189I walked to the edge of one hole and was able to see down into what had been a building of some sort. The village well was fully uncovered in the center, and off to one side, there was a thick round stone that bore similar chisel marks that I had seen in the tombs. The stone would have been used for grinding grain.

When I was a kid, Indiana Jones seemed like the coolest job ever, and although after discovering that real archaeology meant hours in the dust and sun sifting pottery shards I decided maybe it wasn’t the career for me, I’ve never really lost my love of ancient cultures. I feel in many ways like we are isolated from these discoveries because we only see them in photos or behind glass in museums. I understand the absolute importance of studying and preserving these things, but¬†damn it’s cool to come face to face with them in such an authentic environment.

Old Town

Having completed our tour of the ancient civilizations, Mr. Fayez wanted to show off the history of his hometown a little bit. Al Ula has obviously been inhabited for a really long time, but the modern Arabs who have become Saudis have a history too.

One of the things I think I will always be grateful to King Abdullah for is his encouragement of history and archaeology. I saw too often in China where people had lost their history after the Cultural Revolution and had to rebuild ancient sites from a few scattered notes and drawings, and it was sad. The strict form of Islam that Saudi was founded with was not particularly interested in any history other than that directly related to Islam, and even then, they were less interested in good historical investigation and preservation than with the production of hagiographies.

I had read several books on Saudi before coming here and was generally advised that any and all archaeology didn’t exist here. Ilhamdulilah this isn’t true. There was the beautiful museum in Riyadh, and I met a whole team of British archaeologists in the airport once on their way to a historical site near Tabuk. Madain Saleh and the old souk Al Balad in Jeddah have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites and the Saudis are starting to take some serious pride in their whole history.

And so it is that that the “old town” of Al Ula is being slowly reclaimed and restored from the dust.

Picture 060

Like so much in Saudi, the influx of oil money caused a great expansion and building of infrastructure. New town Al Ula is modern and comfortable with many public services, parks, recreation areas and a bustling if small souk (shopping) area. But families living there can trace their roots to the the small collection of stone and mud buildings in Old Town, and some of them decided to restore the little village. The process isn’t yet complete, so we were able to see the slow changes.

IMG_1195The whole town in enclosed in a wall, the gates to which were closed up at night for safety against raiders. The Arabian peninsula was a very violent place until the last several decades. The houses were build with shared walls between them and the streets were covered by a roof made of whole palm trunks thatched with palm fronds and covered in mud. This kept the sun out of the town making it a cool refuge in the heat of the day. In fact, I noticed it right away when we stepped though the gate that the temperature inside the village was lower than merely standing in shadow outside it. It was like stepping into a cave.

IMG_1208We saw a mixture of original and restored in doors, walls, ceilings and steps. There was even a house that had some relics of tightly woven date frond floor mats and an old metal storage box. It’s very likely that some of the older folks in Al Ula had actually lived in these houses before the oil money came in and the new town was built up. Mr. Fayez told us that he learned most of the history of the town from his grandmother who had seen it change so much.

IMG_1222The old town also boasted a stone watchtower, built on one of the natural rock formations that overlooked the whole area and would have allowed them to see any danger long before it reached the walls. From this vantage point we could clearly see the progress of the houses that had been fully rebuilt and the ones that were still waiting for attention.

Change of Plans at the Viewing Platform

At this point, my guide, Mr. Fayez, had to leave me and drive my co-explorer for the day back to Madina. Indradeb was actually enjoying his last day in Saudi Arabia and should be back in England even as I am writing this. (waves!) However, not to be a bad guide, Mr. Fayez had arranged for a friend of his to continue the remainder of my tour and make sure that I got to the airport safely. His friend happened to be a member of the Police Intelligence whose name I shall not be sharing out of respect.

So we drove back to the hotel where I once again tried to divest my shoes and socks of sand and enjoyed a brief cup of Turkish coffee in the courtyard before setting off for the final stop on my tour. Little did I know that my day’s adventure had so much more in store for me.

The officer was plain clothes, dressed in a traditional Saudi thobe and shemagh. He didn’t speak much English, possibly even less than I speak Arabic at this point, but we managed to have a sort of conversation on the drive out with our limited vocabulary and some charades. He was actually very open minded and well traveled and quite pleasant company. I hope that he’s a good example of Saudi police, but honestly he’s the only one I’ve ever talked to, so I have no way of knowing.

When we reached the last stop, a very high peak overlooking the whole town of Al Ula, we were right behind another tour group that we’d passed a couple times throughout the day. In fact, it was the same group we’d talked to at Madain Saleh. The lady worked at the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh and her husband was one of the few male dependent spouses among the expat community. Her parents had come in on a family visa for a visit. (Apparently it’s easy enough to get visitor visas for parents, but not for siblings, so Mom, Dad, lemme know if you wanna come visit).

Picture 062

We had come to the site to overlook the city and all the places we’d been during the day and to get a great view of the sunset. Their tour guide exchanged idle ribbing with my escort, teasing him that police officers were becoming tour guides now. The Sweds and I chatted idly about our experiences in Saudi and for the day’s tour as we snapped photos and waited for the sun to paint the sky. We were not disappointed.

Picture 076

Dinner in the Desert

As I mentioned before there are only a few flights in and out of Al Ula every week, so they were heading out on the same evening flight as I was. We thought we were parting ways until the airport, but their tour guide told me that they were all heading to a Bedouin dinner in the desert before the flight and I was welcome to come along. Since it wasn’t even 6pm and the flight was at 10pm, I said sure.

So we piled into the cars and drove back out to the cliffs of Madain Saleh. While we couldn’t enter the historical site at night, we pulled off right across the road and went up a small hill toward some more stunning giant rocks that had been light from below with electric lights. There was a Bedouin tent set up with carpets inside and a fire crackling. We took a little while to explore the rocks, finding a little stairway that led up to another viewing platform, then returned to the tent for hot sweet tea and dates while we waited for dinner.

The dinner was a home cooked meal made by some of the local ladies, traditional foods like kabsa and jareesh and kofta and tabuleh and sambosa (yum). However it was also substantially late. Our poor guides were beside themselves since they had expected the food to be waiting for us when we arrived and it didn’t show up until after 8pm! Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but they were especially worried that we wouldn’t make it to the airport. I can’t say that they would have been so worried if half of the guests weren’t carrying diplomatic passports, but regardless they were quite vigilant that we catch our flight.

While we were waiting for our meal, we found out that the French Cultural Attache had been misplaced. He was in town visiting the French archaeologist at the dig site in Madain Saleh, but no one could find him and his phone seemed to have gone dead or been turned off. My ersatz guide began making phone calls to the town police to set up a search party. No one likes to loose diplomats.

After a long day of walking and hiking, we set to the food with a will when it did arrive. I don’t think the lack of time to eat was actually an issue since we were all quite hungry and ate with what can only be described as gusto. The food was also excellent. I feel like its a real shame that younger Saudi women aren’t learning how to make these dishes because I fear the cuisine may be lost.

Their version of kabsa was especially nice. The traditional cardamom spiced rice had been augmented with a mixture of caramelized onions and sultanas and the chicken was both sweet and savory. Jareesh is going to be one of my favorite foods forever now, even though I know I won’t be able to eat it in America (silly Monsanto wheat!). This one was so creamy and rich I could only eat a tiny bowl but it was amazing! The kofta meatballs were huge and made of a velvety texture that only the best meatballs ever achieve, soaking in a spiced broth that was ideal to slurp up with the broken up kofta. The tabuleh salad was cool and had fresh greens and a light tahini taste and the sambosa were quite generous as well, filled with spiced meat and chopped vegetables. I didn’t try the okra stew, since I’m not a huge okra fan and all the other foods were so delicious.

That One Time I Helped Rescue the French Cultural Attache (ok, so that may be a tiny exaggeration, but it sounds cooler this way!)

After dinner we quickly reshod our feet and hied back to the cars to get to the airport on time. There was still no sign of the missing diplomat, but there wasn’t really anything I could do, so I watched the traffic and the clock, hoping that if we were late for check in at the airport my police escort might help smooth my way.

Then the officer escorting me got a phone call and pulled over behind the vehicle in front of us. It turned out that one of his officers had found the Frenchman (Cyrille is his name) and we were stopping to pick him up and add him to our airport caravan. Cyrill hopped in the backseat quite flustered and two things soon became apparent: 1) Cyrill spoke¬†no Arabic, and 2) he’d lost his passport sometime during the day.

He told me that he had a strong interest in history and archaeology (a Ph.D worth of interest to be precise) and that in addition to visiting his country’s resident archaeologist, he’d been doing some exploring on his own when his car became lodged in a sand dune. The sand out here is tricky. One moment it’s packed like a dirt road and the next its a shifting sliding slog. The two don’t always look different either, a fact I’d noticed on previous outings off road in the Kingdom.

While he was stuck only 5-6km from the hotel, it was an unpleasant terrain and on top of that his cell phone battery had died! He had been rescued by some people passing by (another testament to the hospitality and the power of charades) and driven back to the hotel by them where he was able to then get yet more folks to come and help him dig his car out. In the ensuing confusion, however, he’d left his camera bag (with diplomatic passport) in the car of the first helpful group.

Most unusually, I had been seated in the front of the officers car while he drove me around, figuring that no one was going to stop us and ask for papers since he¬†was the police. (it’s not ok for me to do this normally, only wives or relatives can sit up front with the male drivers). And when Cyrill saw me communicating with the officer driving us, he leapt to the conclusion that I spoke Arabic and somehow I became the defacto translator between them.

Thankfully, the story of the missing passport/camera bag and some kind of vehicle description had been relayed to our escort by one of the other folks in the phone chain, because I cannot be sure I would have been able to convey all of that, but once I established that he knew what the problem was, we were able to discuss the plan of action.

To help you further understand the insanity of this situation: Our flight was at 10:20 pm. Check in for flights closes an hour before take-off. Yes, ok, I knew from previous personal experience that this wasn’t an absolute, and I was fairly sure that we could be a little late and that between the police presence and diplomatic presence, we’d be allowed to board, but it was already after 9pm at this point and both Cyrill and I were becoming a little anxious. Since he was just flying back to Riyadh, he wouldn’t need the passport to board, but then it would be lost in Al Ula, which is not what you want to take back to your Ambassador, I’m sure.

I gleaned that the plan was to have the unis track down the camera bag and bring it to us at the airport. So here’s me with something like 30-40 Arabic words to my repertoire trying to navigate the complex explanations of our host whose English parts of the explanation included “camera” and “passport” with a French diplomat relying on me to help translate his needs and concerns, and to reassure him that the passport was being recovered and we would make the flight on time. I cannot make this stuff up.

The officer had stopped several times to talk to uniformed police as we continued on our way, and we were growing increasingly anxious about the check in time. Cyrill and I continued to talk on the way, perhaps he was trying to keep his mind off the missing passport, I know I would be going nuts if I lost mine. Within a minute of the cutoff time we pulled into the airport parking lot and headed inside. Let’s check in, I told him, then we can take our time following up with the passport.

However, like so many people in the modern world, Cyrill’s flight information was safely tucked away in his phone, which was dead. Me to the rescue again with my trusty back up charger! I got this spare battery basically with solar panels and all because I thought it would be horrible to be out travelling and not able to charge my devices that I depend on for everything from music and camera to document storage, to translation dictionary. Turns out it is horrible. So I hooked up Cyrill’s phone and got him back up and running.Shortly after that the officer told me that the camera bag had been recovered and was on its way. Not surprisingly we also met the Swedish delegation at the check in counter and got to relay the whole thrilling tale to them as well.

Once the bag and passport were safely returned, we profusely thanked and bid farewell to our guide and host and gratefully flopped into the seats in the lounge to await the flight. And now I have a French diplomat in my contacts list and an invitation to whatever event happens to be going on at the Embassy the next time I’m in Riyadh, so we’ll just have to see how that pans out next month.


So that wraps up the first full day of adventures for this vacation. I don’t think it could have been any more fully packed if we’d used a prybar but it certainly was amazing and unforgettable. Some people may say tourism in Saudi isn’t worth it, but I find that every time I set out for a trip I get all that I could have dreamed and more. One of the guides told me that the reason Saudi isn’t open to tourism is because they want to finish developing all the roads and access to the tourist sites so that they can present an image that is commensurate with the country’s great wealth, but I know it won’t be the same by then and while I will always encourage others to see this country as more than the home of Osama bin Laden or the place where oil grows, ¬†I know that we will loose something if they turn all these sites into wealth-showing attractions, and I will always treasure my time here in these days of change.

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 2: A Morning in Madain Saleh

I spent a whole day in transit to get to a city only 3 hours by car away from the one I live in. Why go through so much trouble and pain just to see some old ruins? Because Saudi Arabia is closed to tourists.

Madain Saleh may have been inhabited as early as the 3rd millennium BC, but very little is yet known about the people or the civilizations that predated the Nabateans (who we know all about by studying Petra in Jordan) because it’s only been in the past few years that archaeologists have been allowed to enter and excavate the site. In fact, the French archaeologist¬†Dr. Laila Nehme was there at the same time I was. I didn’t meet her, but I did have in interesting run in with the French cultural attache who had come up from Riyadh to check on her that day (more on that later).

So, as a pure achievement junkie, I could not imagine coming so close to such an amazing piece of history and missing out! The only other time that I could have gone would have been in the summer heat after the semester ended, so I took two days of my precious vacation, and spent one of them simply travelling so that I could walk these grounds.

As it turned out, my adventure was¬†way more than I’d bargained for, but in a good way. Read about it here and see¬†all the photos on facebook!


Arriving on one of only two inbound flights for the week on Friday evening, my guide picked me up at the airport. You have to have a guide to see Madain Saleh. (disclaimer: Lot’s of Westerners don’t, because all rules in Saudi are¬†malleable, but it’s a safer option than travelling all¬†that way and possibly getting turned aside or lost). Particularly since I cannot drive in Saudi, a good guide was important to me. I searched a long time to find one, since tourism isn’t yet a big deal and locals who want to go to Madain Saleh just drive themselves!

Mr. Fayez

After emailing everyone on the official tourist guide website, and scouring Trip Advisor, I found Mr. Fayez. Who, by the way, is awesome and I’ll be happy to send you his contact info if you need a guide.

Mr. Fayez spoke very proficient English and had not only agreed to be my guide to Madain Saleh, he also arranged all my transport, the necessary permits to visit the sites, and helped me with meals! He even sent me a message shortly before my vacation began to verify our plans, a true rarity in Saudi where everything is “Inshallah”.

Knowing I was a single lady travelling alone, he brought his niece and nephews with him when he picked me up at the airport (at night). This may sound odd, but its actually very courteous. It is a protection both of his reputation and of mine to ensure not only that nothing untoward happens, but that no one will talk bad or spread rumors. We drove around a bit and I got a sneak preview of the amazing rock formations that surround the town of Al Ula. He told me that the hotel had a restaurant but that it was very expensive and offered to take me to another restaurant that was much more reasonable.

Of course, he’s friends with the restaurant owner, this kind of thing is standard in lots of places with local guides, but it really was a better price and very good food with such generous portions that I ate the remainder for breakfast the next day. Sadly, the restaurant owner says he’s tired of running it because kids come by and tag the walls with paint all the time, so he’s selling the space to a traditional¬†kabsa restaurant.

During our time talking, I also discovered that Mr. Fayez is 37 and planning to get married in just a few weeks. His bride is only 20, but this age gap is fairly common, since men have to finish their education, get a job and save up money before they can get married, while women only have to be legally old enough. He told us that his young bride really didn’t know anything about running a home, she didn’t even know how to make tea yet! To me, this is just another example of how the oil wealth has really changed the younger generations in Saudi, making them dependent on servants to do anything that resembles “manual labor” including simple household tasks like cooking or sewing a button.

IMG_1059Mr. Fayez is one of many tour guides in Al Ula, but he is the only one who makes guiding tourists his full time job. All the other guides have “day jobs” (which doesn’t amount to much real work for Saudis) and take tourists around on the weekends. He said that the reason he charges less than the others (and he does) is so that he can attract more customers, but that the other guides give him a hard time because he is making their prices seem too high (which they are). It made me happy to be supporting a Saudi who wanted to make a success of his own business and work hard to achieve his goals. I feel like that’s a rare quality in the Kingdom nowadays, so I may be shamelessly plugging for him as a great choice if you visit Madain Saleh.

While we waited for Isha prayers to end so we could pick up the food, Mr. Fayez took me by one of the towns public parks. It was a beautifully grassy area just alongside one of the prodigious rock formations with a nice walking path, and a playground for children. On a Friday evening, many families were out enjoying the mild weather, and it was really neat to be able to see the community. In many ways it reminded me of the Corniche in Jeddah. When I told Mr. Fayez this he laughed and said except there is no sea.

Al Ula is a very small town. I’m not actually sure why it has an airport except for the UNESCO fame. Some blogs I read said that there were smaller hotels or hostels around, but they were single men and had more options. As a woman (single or not) the only real option was one of the towns two hotels. Yes, two. I chose the Al Ula Arac Resort because it was only slightly more expensive and a lot nicer looking. And as with so many things in Saudi, looks are all. I’ll be doing a separate post on all the accommodations of my trip, so for now I’ll just leave it at that.

We were scheduled to set out at 9am, joined by a man from the UK who had also booked Mr. Fayez for a tour. My day trip companion was Indradeb (you may notice the name is a teeny bit Hindu), and he arrived decked out with a large professional looking camera and a loaded backpack.

On the drive out, Mr. Fayez explained to me that we would start the day with Madain Saleh, since it closed fairly early, the we would see the Ottoman Train Station, Elephant Rock, the Dadan ruins, Old Town and finish with a sunset view from an overlook rock. Quite a full itinerary, but traffic was minimal and Mr. Fayez had made all the arrangements so everything went smoothly.

He also told us the origin of the name “Madain Saleh” which means Saleh’s Town. Although I have found that this story is fairly well known by Muslims, I cannot speak to the Quranic veracity of this version of the story, I can only relate it as it was told to me.

The Story of Saleh and the Camel

It comes from an Islamic belief that the Prophet Saleh (PBUH) entreated the people to follow a single god, Allah. The people ridiculed him and treated him very poorly, demanding proof of Allah’s power. Finally, Saleh prayed to Allah to send a miracle to convince the people. Allah turned a giant stone into a pregnant camel (also giant) who then gave birth to her calf.

Allah instructed Saleh that the people should alternate days in using water for themselves and for this camel. Drinking one day, and watering the camel the next, but that they could then drink the milk of the camel.

The giant camel came and went from the town as she pleased, seen by the people only when she came to get water and give milk. They were instructed not to follow her when she left.

But people being human, some of them were still not satisfied with the miracle, and desired to kill the camel. So they followed it into the mountains one day, and killed it while the calf escaped. Allah was so displeased with them that he sent a plague. On the first day their faces all turned yellow, on the second day red, and on the third day they turned black and died.

Only the people who believed Saleh (PBUH) and left the town with him were spared.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells his followers this story when they camp at a site somewhere one the road between Tabuk and Madina, and makes them leave the place because it is cursed. Many Muslims today believe that Madain Saleh is that place, although there is still room for question as we await further archaeological discoveries.

As a consequence, some Muslims avoid the historical site, believing it to be the cursed place told of by the Prophet.

Madain Saleh

This is known to be the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization which Petra is the main capitol of. Everyone knows Petra from Indiana Jones, and I was planning to visit it next, but was excited to see the contrast between the two.

The actual town of Madain Saleh is still underground, yet to be excavated fully, and is not open to the public, so we contented ourselves with the necropolis and temple.

The rocks around Al Ula are tall jutting mountain sized boulders, leftover from when the whole area was under water. In fact, I could see clear signs of water erosion on the rocks that the tombs were carved into. It made the tombs stand out even more, since they were smooth and flat in contrast to the pocked, uneven stone they had been carved from.

The tombs range in age and size. The size depended mainly on the wealth of those to be buried within. Mr. Fayez told us that the builders would start at the top and carve the facade, then excavate the inside of the tombs. We saw several that had been only partly finished and this method was obvious.

Also, unlike many historical sites, there was nothing preventing us from walking right inside the tombs where we could see the tool marks left by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago. There were niches in the walls that had been carved out for single bodies, and deeper pits that had been designed to hold several bodies together.

The front of the tombs were decorated almost without variation by two pillars, a peaked triangular shape connecting them, and five stepped ziggurat shapes carved above that. Some had urns above the pillars, there were also many eagles as central adornments. A five petal flower was also quite popular. Mr. Fayez explained that five was a sacred number, and that the steps on the ziggurats represented the steps ascending to the gods or descending to the netherworld.

We also saw one tomb that had two small sphinxes guarding it above its pillars, indicating some influence of the Egyptian culture.

The grounds that cover Madain Saleh are quite large, and while we walked around many areas, we also drove between several. The temple area was quite astounding. A narrow passage between two high rocks led past a deeply carved gathering place for worship. Mr. Fayez showed us how the people had used the rocks to funnel the rain water into cisterns to be used in holy rituals.

We passed through the high rocks (a walk that echoed the long passage at Petra leading to the Treasury) looking at the small niches and carvings along the way, small spaces to place statues or offerings. We also climbed one of the tall rocks within, affording us a spectacular view of the whole area.

I’d cast off my hijab in the morning, deciding that I didn’t really need it if we were isolated from the crowds, but I was still wearing my abaya this whole time. Climbing around on the rocks in a flowing black dress is not easy. We ran into some tourists (who turned out to be from the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh) on their way back down from the view point, and I noticed the younger woman had doffed her abaya too. We had all done as much on our trip to the Edge of the World, and it was getting quite warm with the shinning sun and climbing, so I took the opportunity to shed mine and tie it around my waist, promising Mr. Fayez that I would put it back on if we ran in to anyone Saudi.

After admiring the view and posing for a few more pictures we moved on to some of the more “quintessential” spots in Madain Saleh, the ones you’ll see if you search Google Images. It didn’t seem to matter how many of the tombs I saw, I didn’t get tired of them. They shared general characteristics but were all unique. Here there were two serpents, or two lions, once a scowling face. Some had become two-storied in an effort to use more of the rock’s interior space. Some of the tomb faces in this area were pockmarked with bullet holes, reminders of Saudi’s bloody unification.

In a daze I drifted in and out of the ancient monuments, feeling an intimacy with the past that we so rarely experience in the modern era. Finally we arrived at the crown jewel, the Unique Palace. It stands alone in a single huge rock, taking up nearly the entirety of one face. It is the only tomb in Madain Saleh to have four pillars, and despite its opulence, it was never completed. Only the facade was carved, and no one was ever buried inside.

The ground around it was a striking shade of yellow, in stark contrast to the rich red sand all around. There were steps leading up to the door that Mr. Fayez said had just been added yesterday. Further evidence that the site is changing as Saudi attempts to build interest in tourism.

We also visited a couple of excavated wells. Apparently the land around Madain Saleh still has a lot of natural water. And the red sand is rich for agriculture. In fact, we saw a few wood and mud remenants of houses that had been modern Saudis living in the area until only a decade or two ago. The government had paid them to move, and torn out all the farmland to return the Heritage Site to it’s natural state.

The Ottoman Train Station

On our way out of Madain Saleh, we stopped at the train station, now defunct, where there was a restroom and small mosque. Duhr prayer call had passed while we were taking in the tombs and Mr. Fayez needed to pray. I was amazed that even out among the ruins we could still hear the Athan although only faintly.

Sand is pervasive. The sand out here isn’t like beach sand. It can range from the larger gritty crystals down to a fine talc-like powder. My shoes and socks were full of sand from my hours in the ruins, so I took some time in the bathroom to try to shake them out. On the way out, I got caught up talking to a man from Africa, because I can’t go anywhere in Saudi without men trying to talk to me and get my number, but Mr. Fayez returned from prayer and rescued me from further awkwardness.

The train station looks exceptionally British. Indradep remarked on the similarities to train stations in London. I suppose by the 1900’s the remains of the Ottoman Empire had been highly affected by British colonialism. We stood around with some other tourists, taking pictures and being generally amused at the contrast between the ancient sites behind us and this nearly modern train.

It reminded me of the old West tourist sites in California, carefully preserved or even replicated relics of that were less than a century old. The date on the trains wheels was 1914.

Elephant Rock

Ok, it really looks like an elephant. That’s kind of all, but it was a short side trip, and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of the amazing rock formations around Al Ula. It’s especially stunning to see sand dunes drifting right up to the bottom of these rocks. The whole landscape looks like it’s barely changed since it was under water 50 million years ago.

I think at this point we finally stopped for lunch. Mr. Fayez had brought along juice and some snacks, which was very thoughtful, but it was a lot of trekking, even with the car. We went back to his friend’s restaurant and had a quick sit down lunch of kebab, grilled meat, green salad, humus and pita, then back in the car again to try to stay on schedule!

To be continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3.

Don’t forget to check out all the photos on facebook!

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 1: The Madina Airport

Why am I writing about the airport? Because this day’s experiences, while not ideal spring break activities, show some very important aspects of Saudi life and culture, so hang in there and take the whole trip with all its ups and downs along with me.

The first day of my vacation was spent in airports for the very simple reason of the Saudi driving ban and gender segregation. Madain Saleh is only about 2-3 hours drive from the town I live in… by car. But since I can’t drive here, and can’t take a bus between cities alone, and can’t hire a (male) driver without extraordinary expense, I instead spent over 11 hours in airports and in the air.

I tried to find a driver, but they were all going to be more expensive than the airfare. My students and local co-worker were surprised to hear I was flying, but they all have husbands, brothers, fathers, or uncles who can drive them where they want to go. The driving ban doesn’t strongly affect them, since it’s only a hardship for those women who don’t have a strong family structure (like divorcees or immigrants and who really cares about them? right?)

There are only 4 flights in and out of Al Ula (the town nearest to Madain Saleh) every week, and they are either to Riyadh or Madina. The one on Friday I took connected through Madina, a city closed to non-Muslims. As a result, I spent the entire 7 hour layover inside the airport. Now, some people will say that this was unnecessary, because I could have easily caught a taxi there and gone out. Like all laws in Saudi Arabia, they are only applicable if you get caught, but the penalty for getting caught is severe. So, while I would love to see the holy cities, I don’t think alone and with minimal Arabic skills is the way to go.

The highlight of my waiting time was my conversation with the Filapina bathroom attendant. She was bored too, as you can imagine, and after seeing me over a course of a couple of hours, approached me to chat.

A thing to understand about KSA, the underclass of immigrant laborers is treated very poorly. There is rampant slavery (withholding of wages, withholding of passports, forced to live in employer provided housing, no transportation and limited contact with others are all very common), and female employees are often subjected to unwanted sexual advances by their male sponsors (heck, even young men can be pressed into homosexual activities). There is no place for these folks to turn. They are promised wages, and often they *are* making more money than they could at home (when they get paid), but they have no way to leave. Exit visas must be granted by the sponsor, flights are expensive, and their Embassies are overwhelmed and underfunded.

As a consequence, I try hard to be nice to these people whenever our paths cross. This lady was in many ways very lucky. Her job in a public (and very holy) place meant that she was protected from some of the worst treatment that immigrant workers are subjected to. She had also become friends with some of the Saudi women who also worked in the airport, and they looked after her to an extent, bringing her small gifts of chocolate and sheltering her from the worst consequences of being Filapina in Saudi.

She had a college education. She spoke her native Tagalog as well as a family village dialect, English and Arabic (the last she taught herself). In the Philippines she had a white collar job doing manager level work, but still did not make enough money to send her two sons to college. This alone is a travesty. She tried some other countries before finally landing in Saudi, where she is content to work cleaning up bathrooms after entitled Saudi wanna-be queens because it allows her to provide the education she wants for her sons (despite the fact that the same education did her no good economically speaking).

She told me that when she first arrived in Saudi she didn’t speak Arabic and was treated very poorly. She determined to teach herself so that she could confront the people who were talking bad about her and making her life harder than it needed to be. Her first step worked. Once the people around her figured out that she could understand them and talk back, she got fewer insults and even a few overtures of friendship.

Then she told me she had converted to Islam from the staunch Catholicism that is practiced by most people in the Philippines. However as we talked more about it, she admitted that she did not partake in the required five times daily prayers, but still prayed in her own time. A few other hints and clues led me to believe that her conversion may have simply been born out of loneliness or a desire to fit in, at best to have a spiritual community to belong to. I don’t blame her. I’ve spent my life without a spiritual community, but I see how important it is to others, and sometimes I envy them. It would be interesting to see if she keeps her faith in Islam once she returns to her homeland and is surrounded by Catholics again.

She told me a story of one of those self important Saudi ladies who had come into the prayer area without removing her shoes. The whole purpose of the sajjaada (prayer rug) is to make sure that the floor you are praying on is clean. The airports often have permanent carpeted areas in the prayer rooms, and this one also had a little shelf for shoes just outside the carpeted room. So the woman walking on the rugs with shoes is very disrespectful and inappropriate. When the Filapina tried to ask her to remove her shoes the Saudi lady became hostile, and physically hurt her by grabbing and pinching her arms, then told her she would make a complaint and get the Filapina fired and deported.

Sadly, this is a real threat. If a Saudi (or other upper class foreigner like, say, an American) makes a complaint against one of the near slave underclass immigrant workers, there won’t be an investigation or a warning, the worker will simply be ejected. If the complaint is bad, they may be jailed, whipped or fined too. This is why I was hesitant to complain about the taxi drivers in Jeddah, because despite their obnoxious behavior, I didn’t think they really deserved such harsh punishment.

Her employer took her papers and she was not allowed to come to work for 15 days while things were being decided. She was sure it was the end of her stay in Saudi and her dreams of providing college to her sons. However, by this time she had, with her Arabic and conversion, made friends among many of the other airport employees, and when they found out what had happened, they appealed to the bosses that the Saudi woman who had complained had a reputation of unreasonable complaints, and begging them to restore the Filapina.

This is wasta at work. Because some of the folks who spoke on her behalf were Saudi and higher ranking employees their word counted for something and her deportation was stayed. They airline told the Saudi complainer that her wish had been granted while quietly moving the Filapina to the international terminal for a while to reduce her chances of being seen by the complainer.

All in all, she has it better than most Filipinas in Saudi, yet she is still working far below her education and qualifications, and living apart from her family and community. She told me that whenever she is alone she cries, because she misses her home and family so much, but when she is around customers at work she always puts on a smile because she wants to bring happiness to others.

Broke my heart.

I like to believe as an educated American, I will never know what it’s like to have to take a blue collar job in a strange country just to provide for my loved ones whom I have left behind. I am fortunate enough to be travelling and working for myself and by choice, but I would be a fool if I didn’t take these stories into myself and let them change me.

It’s so easy to distance ourselves from those less fortunate, or¬†to paint¬†them into only the starving children of Africa or India who are so destitute they become a romantic tragedy, a plight for Angelina Jolie to bring aid. And they need it, don’t get me wrong. But so many more people around us, right next to us, people we pass on the streets and in the airports, are living “lives of quiet desperation” in a way that Thoreau himself could not have imagined.

So if ending world hunger seems like too much for you to tackle, think about those around you. When was the last time you talked to your company’s janitor? Or the bus boy at your favorite restaurant? I think we tell ourselves we can’t make a real change, but a small kindness like a bit of luxury chocolate, a friend who’s willing to listen when it seems too much, a friend who’s willing to speak up and lend a hand when the crazy bureaucracy threatens to beat their dreams down can make all the difference to someone struggling to find a dream.

This woman didn’t want anything from me but someone to hear her story. Friends she made in Madina did little things like bring her chocolate that she would never buy for herself because she was sending every spare cent home. And they fought for her when her job was in danger. Never doubt that even small actions can make a big impact when applied with love.

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Spring Break 2015: Overview

My English program in Saudi is not a normal University program, but an intensive 21 week all day English course. This means we don’t get the regular university breaks. So aside from the religious holidays of Eid, and the State holiday of National Day, our only other holiday was a week between the two 21 week semesters. I have opted to think of this as “spring break”. I know it isn’t spring yet, but “winter break” has connotations of holidays and going to see family and is usually longer, whereas “spring break” is typically only a week long and used by most to run off an have raucous party times in tropical beaches (which I did at least a little of).

Today is my first day back from the vacation, and tomorrow school starts again, so I’m mostly laying on the couch trying to get my feet to unswell and gathering my strength for a new batch of students. One valuable thing I learned from this is that I really don’t have the fortitude to run around 3 countries in 7 days without proper rest. And I certainly don’t have time to stop and write about it. But since the summer travels will be restricted by money, rather than time, and staying put for a day is one of the least expensive things you can do while travelling, I should be able to take more regular downtime days where I can rest, reflect and share.

But for now, I have to do those things after the trip is finished. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be organizing my photos and stories and putting them here and on my facebook page. Until then, here’s a brief overview of the trip and what stories you can look forward to.

Day 1

This day was entirely spent travelling. There’s a sort of horrible irony to the fact that it took me almost 12 hours of travelling to get somewhere 3 hours away by car. Oh, Saudi. I had a loooong layover in the Medina airport, the highlight of which was meeting the Filapina bathroom attendant and learning the story of her life and how she came to convert to Islam and work in Saudi. Mostly it’s a story about insane economic inequality, but still worth hearing.

Day 2

This day was spent in Al Ula and Madain Saleh. I had to hire a guide because of the travel and driving restrictions in Saudi, but he turned out to be quite nice and very responsible. My original intent was just to see Madain Saleh, the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization, but I ended up seeing some other cool stuff around Al Ula as well. I ended the evening with a Bedouin style dinner out at the base of some of the high rocks, and had an interesting encounter with the local police and the French Cultural Attache.

Day 3

I also spent mostly travelling. I had an overnight flight to Amman and only crashed for a couple hours in the hostel before catching the local bus to Petra (yay local public transportation). I made it into Petra before the park closed, and since a 2 day pass is only 5JD more than a 1 day, I decided it was worth it for a couple of hours. Petra is the northern capital of the Nabateans, and made famous by Indiana Jones. I met a local Bedouin man who was closing up shop for the evening and just spent some time walking and talking with me. I learned a great deal about the local Bedouin tribe there and even walked up to their village with him at sunset. Dinner was another Bedouin style tent affair up in the rocks, similar to the one at Madain Saleh, but more commercial. However the effect of the paper lanterns on the cliffside was beautiful, and the number of stars visible in the sky was stunning.

Day 4

This was an all day hike into Petra. I have to do some research to find out how far I walked, but it was a looong hike with many many steps carved into the rocks. I walked up to the monastery with another American I’d met in the hostel, and walked back with a variety of trail partners from many different places. I also sat and had tea with several of the Bedouin ladies who were selling handmade goods (and other trinkets) along the trail. Turns out, they still barter as well as haggle. In the evening I took a charter bus back to Amman and waited for my plane in the hostel with another traveler from Australia.

Day 5

Another overnight flight, I arrived in Dubai in the morning and managed to check out the metro transit system and finish up some shopping before having a short nap and heading to a nearby beach bar where I met a lady from two neighborhoods over in Seattle! She turns out to also have an amazing story, btw.

Day 6

Sightseeing in Dubai. I started the day with a boat tour of the marina, where I met a lovely lady from Slovenia because we both had matching high top converse “chucks”. We had the same itinerary for the day, so we stayed travel buddies, and so hopefully, I’ll get some cool pictures from her as well when she’s all done. We went to the Atlantis Aquarium and then ended the day with a desert ¬†sunset ¬†tour. That was especially strange as my third evening in “Bedouin style” entertainment, but Dubai was by far the most touristy and least authentic. Afterward, we parted ways and I went to see the Global Village, which I can only describe as Disney meets Model UN.

Day 7

More sightseeing in Dubai. I made it to the Museum, the Heritage Village, the Gold Souk, the Jumeirah Mosque, the Burj Arab and ended with the Dubai Mall dancing fountain show (I got video and pictures this time!). Traffic was abysmal, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was exhausted, but there ¬†was so much music playing around, that I couldn’t sleep, so I headed back to the beach bar where I ended up sitting on the sand and watching crazy drunk people.

Day 8

Finishing off Dubai without a champagne brunch was sad, but I headed once more to the nearby beach bar and had a lovely breakfast with a single glass of sparkling rose overlooking the marina. Glorious. Then headed back to the airport for the long journey back to Tabuk.

READ MORE

This is all just the quickest of overviews, a teaser, a trailer, a tantalizing glimpse of the wonders I experienced in the last 8 days. Those of you who read regularly know that each tale will be spun in detail and color as time allows, and those of you who may be new or who I met on this trip, I hope you’ll come back and see the full stories.

ūüôā

Reflections: Halfway Through Saudi

So, we’re in the last few days of my first of two semesters teaching in Saudi. I thought I would take a moment to reflect.

As with all new experiences, there was so much I didn’t know when I first arrived. How to wrap a hijab, how to time my shopping and dining around prayer times, how to haggle for a taxi, and so much more. A visiting substitute teacher started reading my blog from the beginning today, sort of forgetting that my taxi experiences were back from late September and early October, he started giving me some advice on “the way things are” in Saudi. It was a little funny, because I realized how much those early posts must have shown off my ignorance, but at the same time, it was nice to see that I was able to share the real first time experiences so well. I worry sometimes now that I’m leaving out or glossing over things that a Western reader would find interesting or not understand, simply because I’ve become so used to them.

In the time since I arrived I’ve been snorkeling in the Red Sea, and ridden Asia’s tallest double loop roller coaster. I’ve had a marriage proposal from a taxi driver and a slightly less savory offer from an over amorous telephone salesman. I had my first drive by flirting. I went to an all girl gaming convention, a family party at an Istraha and a wedding at the town’s most famous wedding hall. I’ve visited a Saudi home, and been treated to a traditional Saudi meal. I’ve seen the Edge of the World and ridden to the top of the world’s tallest man made structure. And so much more.

Sure sometimes I’m bored or lonely, because my days are not one string of adventures after another, but those times of solitude are needed rest times, and also serve to contrast the excitement of exploration.

Getting back into teaching after a six year break has also been an adventure. It turns out that even though I didn’t get paid for it, I never really stopped teaching. My “teacher mode” is still alive and well, and has been commented on if I accidentally slip into it when chatting with my peers. There were a lot of things about the educational facility and the national system here that I found frustrating at first, and sometimes still do, but I feel like I’ve settled into a groove and nearly every day I enjoy my job, so that seems like a good sign for my present and my future.

Keep Calm and Inshallah

I think one of the more interesting things is my own changes in perception of time and plans. One of the biggest phrases used here is “Inshallah” which literally means “if God wills it”. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that I not only didn’t understand when I arrived, but found endlessly aggravating. I couldn’t understand what was so hard about just committing to a plan, but every time I asked if someone could do something, the answer was “Inshallah”. It didn’t seem to mean anything! Sometimes it was an excuse to say ‘no’ without being rude, sometimes it was a ‘yes, assuming nothing catastrophic goes wrong’, and it could be anything in between.

Before I came here, I was really big into plans, and confirming plans with other people. Are we gonna hang out tonight? If yes, great! If not, I’m gonna find something else to do. But “maybe” means I sit around waiting for you, and you change your mind at the last minute and I miss out on something else cool I could have done if you’d made up your mind earlier today? PNW people are¬†notorious for replying “maybe” when they mean “no”, but you can never tell the one time they’re going to expect you to follow through because they said “maybe”. I still think that’s really rude, but I think I’ve found a headspace where I can be less bothered by it through the power of “Inshallah”.

Now I know that “Inshallah” works because the whole culture embraces it. Everything is slow, no one gets upset when things aren’t on time (except my driver when my plane is late), and if it doesn’t work the way you expected you can generally get someone to help you work it out anyway. For example, once I showed up to the airport a little bit late. The check in desk had closed. In America, this would mean I was s.o.l. I’ve heard my roomie who works for an airline say this often enough. But in Saudi, Inshallah, I can still get on the plane. And I did. It was a convoluted story involving several airline employees moving me from place to place, through security, from one gate to another, and finally hand writing a boarding pass for me, but I got on the plane, and I got back to Tabuk. Ilhamdulillah (thank God).¬†I don’t think I can live by it in America the way people do here, because the whole society supports it, but I’m hoping it helps lower my blood pressure anyway.

The Shrinking To-Do List

Because of the way that everything is so casual about when it happens, you spend a lot of time waiting here. Whether you’re waiting in line at the store, or waiting at home for some news or for your driver, or for prayer to be over so you can go out… there’s a lot of waiting. I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that some of the worst time in the world is time spent waiting that you could be doing something fun or useful. I spent some time in the beginning waiting in that state. Then I realized no one but me expected me to do as much with my day as I had done in the states. I could spend hours watching tv while slowly doing my laundry (cause that takes forever) or take an hour to do a self pedicure a couple times a week, or just talk to my mom for 3 hours. I didn’t¬†have to get anything much done, and more importantly, I didn’t have to feel guilty about not accomplishing everything.

I’m not laying around all day every day, mind you. I still teach 5 days a week and go on adventures whenever I can, plus each one of these posts usually represents a solid afternoon’s work. Before, I treated down-time like any of my other mandatory health maintenance tools (like doing yoga, fixing healthy meals, brushing my teeth etc), I knew I needed it to stay healthy, but that was the only way I could “justify” spending an afternoon lounging around in my PJs marathon watching “Dexter”. Since coming to Saudi, I’ve learned that I don’t need to justify it. My to-do list doesn’t have to include a million and one activities just to look full or avoid “wasting time”, it needs to include the things that I genuinely want and need to get done, and¬†if one of those is break out the Shisha and catch up on facebook gossip,¬†that’s ok.

Happier and Happier

The last time I lived abroad for so long, I was still reeling from some pretty bad life experiences that I’m still not quite ready to publicly discuss. Suffice it to say, I was not emotionally/mentally healthy. So, I went through some pretty extreme emotional roller coasters caused in part by my own state, but in large part by culture shock. I felt bi-polar. I was actually really worried I was going crazy at the time, until I found out that it’s fairly normal to react to culture shock this way. (in later years I had a friend who went completely off the deep end within a few days of arriving in China and only managed to not fly home instantly because I could explain this phenomenon over a beer and convince him we could work through it). I would go through phases of loving everything and hating everything. I’d want to go out every day, or I’d want to hide inside and watch tv. I missed the people in Seattle so badly it was a physical ache. I had a six week break for the winter there and decided to go back to visit. Returning to China may have been¬†the¬†hardest thing I’ve ever done.

So when I was getting ready to come to Saudi, I reviewed these experiences and sort of braced myself to have some serious emotional roller coaster-ness. What I didn’t take into account was that I’d been actively learning the art and science of happiness since about the fall of 2012 (I swear, I’m going to write about that someday). I’d started from the basic idea that my main goal in life from thence forth was to¬†be happy. I learned a lot about how to make that happen since then. And it seems to have made a big impact on how I experience culture shock.

To start with, the extreme mood swings simply don’t exist. I’d expected to have the new place euphoria for about 2-3 months and then maybe a slump, and that happened, but neither was as big as it had been in China. Moreover, the slump coincided with some very real-world causes for sadness such as the one year deathiversary of my friend, my first experience being censored, a very serious fever/flu, a new class of absolute hellions (which I did eventually figure out how to relate to and now love), and the impending holiday season in a place where such things are illegal. But even with all those things combined with the anticipated culture shock slump, it really only lasted a couple of weeks, and I was able to find center again as the events that contributed to the icky feelings passed¬†or were resolved.

Secondly, while I think of my friends in America often, and miss them, it’s more like fondly remembering the past and quietly anticipating a future where we are reunited. It isn’t an ache or pain. This might change if I didn’t get to chat with them online or stalk them on facebook, so I’m grateful for all the internet has to offer, but I also recognize the change from¬†needing these people daily to bring me out of depression and¬†looking forward to talking with them or seeing them so I can share the happy times. Mental health win!

When you like Islam, the terrorists loose.

I can’t/don’t want to go into all of the things I’ve learned about Islam¬†while living here in this post. I’m still working on my own understanding both of the culture here and of how my feelings are changing in response. I do want to say that before I came here, I had a solid intellectual understanding that Islam does not equal terrorism. I used to try to correct people’s misconceptions, and would say things about it that I’d learned in a book somewhere, mostly because I don’t like fear, hatred or ignorance about anything. But living here, making real emotional connections with my co-workers and students and seeing how they live inside their religion, and how the fear, hate and ignorance are hurting them has really caused me a deep shift in my emotional understanding.

I’ve found myself having much more emotion-driven responses to Islamaphobic media, and defending Islam and Saudi with much more feeling than I had done in the past. I don’t think I’m going to convert or anything, but I’m extremely grateful to be allowed to see and feel things from this point of view. Sorry, I can’t really get into details until I’m back in the land of free speech, because while my overall intention is positive and supportive, it’s not all roses and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers while I am a guest in this country.¬†Maybe when it’s all over, I’ll be able to write more about what this has meant to me and how the transition has happened as well as list out all the good and bad things I see here with new eyes, but for now, I just want to say that I can feel myself changing, growing and deepening as a result of connecting with the people here.

Islamaphobia sucks. There’s some theories that terrorist groups are actually trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims so the (large majority of) non-violent Muslims are further isolated and driven toward the terrorists for comfort and support. So, piss of a terrorist and be tolerant of Islam!

What’s Next?

Well, now that I’ve gotten my feet under me, and jumped some of the biggest cultural hurdles, I have another semester to look forward to starting in a little over a week. My last real vacation is in just a few days, and I’m planning to get some stunning pics of two Nabatean Ruins and some parts of Dubai I missed last time.

I’m looking forward to the new semester in some ways and not in others. We’ve all learned a lot about the program and each other. We’re hopeful that a new batch of students means a fresh start to avoid our previous mistakes and improve on our successes. But I’m sad because so much of what went wrong this semester means that there’s a crackdown on rules like bathroom breaks and coffee in the classroom. I’m pretty darn tired of feeling like a prison warden when my students are grown adult women, some of whom are married with children of their own. But, since I don’t have any real control over it, I’ll take what I’ve learned from the first semester and just focus on doing what I can in a positive way.

The next semester doesn’t have¬†any breaks for 22 weeks, oh and it’s an extra week long because Ramadan will fall at the end of the semester, shortening our days but lengthening our weeks to balance the hours. I have a few weekend trips I’m hoping to take, however (Inshallah) and I’m interested to see how Ramadan goes in an all Muslim country. I’ve gotten a lot of disparaging comments from the other non-Muslim expats around, but that happens fairly often, so I take it with a grain of salt. I’m sure if this country didn’t pay us so well, 80% of them wouldn’t be here. Besides, by then I’ll be happily planning my summer adventures!

So stay tuned readers, as we continue to travel, seek, teach and learn together ūüôā